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Johann Sebastian Bach
The French Suites
BWV 812-817

Six Preludes
David Cates, Harpsichord 

Review by Wayne Donnelly
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Johann Sebastian Bach: The French Suites, BWV 812-817

CD Stock: Music & Arts CD1124


  This presentation of the French Suites is, to borrow from Madison Avenue, "not your fatherís J. S. Bach." In David Cates' conception of this music, the dance movements that make up these six harpsichord suites are as redolent of the boudoir as of the drawing room. Well, perhaps thatís a bit extreme, but certainly these ear-opening recreations of what are generally regarded as among the great masterís simplest and most decorous keyboard compositions are here by turns impetuous, assertive, tender and warmly romantic. Cates makes telling use of rubato, occasionally exaggerates the separation of contrapuntal voices, and favors a greater dynamic range and more emotional treatment of melody than we are accustomed to hearing in this music.

This approach does not strike me as arbitrary or willful, although I can imagine such terms coming from those who are startled (and not pleased) with Cates' passionate conception. In his fine liner notes, Cates succinctly places these works in the context of Bachís other great keyboard collections, and advances the proposition that the French Suites were a kind of wedding present for his musically gifted second wife, Anna Magdalena. Starting from that point of view, Cates seems to envision an intimate, romantic J. S. Bach, powdered wig safely tucked away in a drawer, moved to express his passion for his new soul mate. It works for this writer; I have always placed Bach among the first great romantic composers. Yes, of course his formal innovations and mastery of so many genres make him paramount among the great musical pedagogues. But what has always drawn me to his music is the abundant emotion running throughout the Bach canon.

Cates prefaces each of the French Suites with a prelude in the same key (taken from The Well Tempered Clavier and other Bach keyboard works. This practice is not unprecedented, and Cates addresses it in the CD notes. I was not sure why this was necessary, and I'm still not. But I like the clear demarcations the preludes provide, contrasting with the succession of dance rhythms that make up the Suites themselves. Perhaps (one hopes) the listener will thereby be encouraged to pay attention to one Suite at a time rather than simply letting them flow endlessly one into another.

David Catesí path to the harpsichord and early music has hardly been direct. At the University of Chicago he studied under the noted pianist, pedagogue and musicologist Easley Blackwood, and continued in New York under pianist Jacob Lateiner. Finding himself increasingly drawn to the harpsichord, he has worked for years to master that instrumentólargely independently, although he has studied with Edward Parmentier and Roger Goodman. However he has learned, Cates has learned well. I am equally impressed by his virtuosity per se and by the degree to which he places it at the service of the music.

The harpsichord heard here, now resident in Londonís Victoria and Albert Museum, was made by Oregon builder Owen Daly, after a 1681 harpsichord by French master Antoine Vaudry. With its four-octave range and its combination of plangent power and emotional delicacy, it seems an ideal instrument for David Cates' passionate vision. The recording captures the sonic tapestry of this fine instrument most impressively, and it is one of the best harpsichord recordings I have heard. Kudos to the recording team!

If your idea of the proper approach to Bach on the keyboard is the more decorous and emotionally restrained style of, say, Gustave Leonhardt, youíll find David Cates a startlingly different kind of interpreter. If he should seem to you too wild, too emotional, give him a few more hearings. These performances have involved me far more deeply in this music that I would have expected from prior acquaintance.

I also highly recommend two earlier David Cates CDs on the Wildboar label: a superbly played and recorded Bach recital and a selection of music by Johann Froberger that makes an excellent case for that obscure composer. As with the French Suites, Cates plays with the imagination and confidence that mark an important artist.






































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